Archive for December, 2010

Misuse of “LGBT” by activists and reporters (A request)

I have seen some misreporting by LGBT activists over the last few days which I felt I should point out, stemming from the fact that people are typing “LGBT” without thinking. Please consider when reporting on things that a win for LGB folk does not necessarily help Trans people.

The first instance of a non-T “LGBT win” is the real of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The changes will not, according to any source or discussion I can find, allow Trans people to serve in the US Miltary. The text of the motion merely “provides for repeal of the current Department of Defense (DOD) policy concerning homosexuality in the Armed Forces“. Transsexuality is handled as a medical problem, with Army Regulation 40-501 Standards of medical fitness (PDF link) for example lumping together “personality disorders, disorders of impulse control not elsewhere classified, transvestism, voyeurism, other paraphilias, or factitious disorders, psychosexual conditions, transsexual, gender identity disorder to include major abnormalities or defects of the genitalia such as change of sex or a current attempt to change sex, hermaphroditism, pseudohermaphroditism, or pure gonadal dysgenesis or dysfunctional residuals from surgical correction of these conditions“. It’s nice that they think Trans issues should be listed alongside personality disorders.

The second is the UN vote on extrajudicial executions. Again, this has been reported as being an LGBT win but the text of the amendment only refers to homosexuality. Disappointingly, the UNs own reports about the debate mention delegates talking about LGBT when debating the amendment.  The full transscripts are not available so I can not tell if this is misreporting by the UN staff, unclear translation on non-English speeches or misinformed delegates. Either way, it’s disappointing to see this from the UN.

So, if you are involved in LGBT politics, activism or reporting, please watch what you type. It is not always appropriate to say something is an LGBT win. Saying something is when it is not is a form of erasure, as if we should be happy for the rest of the LGB commuity gaining rights and recognition we do not have.

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Transphobia in Education: DfE responds

I have just received a response, reproduced below, to my letter to the education secretary. From private correspondence, I suspect they had not previously talked to GIRES (Although I do not know for sure – I’m weeks behind on much of my email!) so hopefully this did make some difference.

Thank you for your email 25 November to the Secretary of State for Education copied to the Minister for Equalities, Lynne Featherstone and Dr Julian Huppert MP regarding your concern that the recently published Schools White Paper does not make reference to transphobic bullying. As you will appreciate the Secretary of State receive a large volume of correspondence and is unable to reply to each one personally. On this occasion I have been asked to reply.

The commitment in the Schools White Paper to tackle bullying covers all forms of bullying especially prejudice-based bullying. The White Paper highlights homophobic and Special Education Needs and/or Disability bullying as an example of forms of bullying which has a high rate of prevalence but is not being tackled effectively.

The Government wants schools to take a zero- tolerance approach to tackling all forms of bullying and to instil good behaviour in their pupils. This may require schools drawing on the experience and expertise of various organisations that specialise in preventing certain forms of bullying to help them develop their bullying strategies. It is the Government’s intention to work with organisations that have a proven track record in their field including GIRES (Gender Identity Research and Education Society) in order that schools can draw on their expertise to tackle transphobic bullying.

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Can we block Ed Vaizey?

It seems that Ed Vaizey has picked up on Claire Perry’s idea to “protect” children on the internet and has announced he’ll be asking ISPs to block porn voluntarily.

This is clearly very problematic, as I’ve mentioned previously. There are far too many questions here:

  • Who decides, as a matter of policy, what should be blocked? Under the “voluntary” system, it sounds like it will be ISPs themselves.
  • Who then implements this policy and creates the actual list of sites?
  • What right of appeal do sites have if they believe they have been inaccurately blocked?
  • What level of granularity will be operated? Cleanfeed blocks specific pages/images, but we already seen that blocking a specific image on a busy interactive site like Wikipedia causes problems. Encrypted sites (HTTPS) can’t be blocked on a per-page basis, only per-site.
  • What about sites such as twitter, which are based on user contributions and highly dynamic? (T-Mobile blocked Twitter as part of their “adult” filter for a while)

Putting all this in the hands of individual ISPs for voluntary regulation is the worst possible solution. Their approach will be to block as much as possible to but avoid blocking sites that will cause huge use complaints, such as Facebook. I would imagine that amongst kids interested in such things, Facebook will be the new school playground where illicit copies of Playboy used to be circulated. This will likely be aided by the false sense of security that parents will have, so they will not be checking what their kids are up to online.

Still, I suppose it will promote the ascendency of the school geek, who will suddenly be the ones able to trivially bypass the filters and get the images in the first place.

Whatever policies are created are likely to include Wikileaks, (Just try to imagine the Home Office not putting pressure on ISPs to include “subversive” sites in the policy) sex education including safer sex, abortion information, LGBT information and all the sorts of information sources that someone who is marginalised is likely to want to access. Can you imagine an 18 year old daughter having to explain to her oppressive father why she needs the porn block lifted on their home internet account? I don’t think “Because I need to find out about safer sex” will go down well, nor will the inevitable “I need to find out about STIs” or “I need to find out about abortion” a few months later.

Is there any incentive for an ISP to publicise the list of sites they are blocking? It does not appear so, which means sites will only find out they have been blocked once they start receiving user complaints. There will also be little reason for the same ISPs to run an efficient and quick appeals system (Far quicker to just say “no” without thinking about it) so once you are on the list, it could be the end of your site or online business.

I shall close with a video which I think satirically illustrates the problem very well, Cleanternet:

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Dear Everyone: Flash Hurts

Dear LibDemVoice, Wikio, Met Office, National Rail Enquiries and, well, the whole internet,

I get that you need to make money, or at least pay the hosting bills. I also understand that you probably have limited editorial control over the adverts that get displayed. However, between you all you have just made me install Firefox Adblock, ensuring I am not going to see half your adverts and thus deprive you of potential revenue.

Not that I was likely to click on them in the first place.

Why? Because I move around a fair bit and other than my trusty iPad, the device I am most likely to be reading your sites with is a little HP NetBook. It only has a 1.6GHz processor and 1GB of RAM which whilst was a specification I’d have drooled over a few years ago, is rock bottom for Windows 7. (I’d intended to run Ubuntu, but it came with Windows and 7 is surprisingly usable compared to Vista) I’m not alone in this, not everyone has nice new shiny computers. My mothers computer, for example, is perpetually struggling just to turn on each morning, although I suspect that has more to do with the fact that my kids are let loose on it most weekends.

Do you know what happens when you put flash or some other animated advert on your site? My computer slows down. Quite a few people’s computers slow down. Somewhere, god probably kills a kitten.

Do you know what happens when you put half a dozen such adverts on your site? It’s like trying to navigate through treacle. Your site becomes unusable and I either have to install Adblock or not bother visiting. Multiple gods band together and start the wholesale slaughter of while cities full of kittens.

Flash hurts!

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Governments hunting down online pharmacies

There’s a BBC News story this morning that is highly biased against online pharmacies with the implication that they’re all or mostly evil, corrupt and dangerous spammers. (They even use the image of a mailbox full of Viagra spam to illustrate it)

Sadly, it seems there is pressure on many organisations to shut down online pharmacies – names listed in the story as working against them include Google, Network Solutions, Paypal, Visa and Mastercard although it is not clear if these companies are targeting just spammers or also more legitimate organisations. There is, as ever, an element of the US throwing it’s weight around here. Non-US companies such as Inhouse Pharmacy have been affected by this by having their US domain name taken away but there is some UK involvement too as the UK domain for the company was also pulled earlier this year.

Why is this a problem?

Because of the obsession by the state and by (Fortunately, not all) doctors to control our bodies and our transition. HRT is not illegal to posses without a prescription and it’s not against the law to import either. You’re just not allowed to sell it in this country without a prescription.

Thankfully, there is a swing against this and there has already been talk of making some hormones available without prescription (Not with Trans folk in mind, of course) as they are already in many countries. With a huge waiting list and process for NHS treatment that can take years, many lives will have been saved by self-medication with HRT and the latest medicines such as Estradiol Valerate do not have the same blood clot problems as earlier medication. (I am not aware of a single study that conclusively indicates modern HRT has any risk at all in this area)

Turning up at Charing Cross Gender Identity clinic and telling the doctors you have been self medicating is also no longer the problem it used to be.

Even once you are transitioned, having an online source can be useful, even essential. Many GPs will only give out drugs in 28 day packs, which can be a hassle to sort every four weeks if you do not work locally. Add on to that inevitable disruption caused by missing consultant letters, going on holiday, moving house or just plain paperwork issues and it pays to keep a good month or so of HRT in reserve.

Lack of HRT may not be life threatening – meaning one can not get the necessary prescription from an A&E department but as anyone that’s been through a very sudden menopause knows, it is not a pleasant experience.

But if online pharmacies are hunted down in this way, there will be fewer sources one can trust for medication. Eventually, it will become entirely black market and then you have no idea what you are taking. Estradiol Valerate is to cheap to be worth counterfeiting, unless lack of availability caused by this sort of thing pushes the price up.

The state does not always know best. It would be nice if, at least for drugs that are not dangerous, they let us make our own minds up rather than treating us like children.

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Santa shows why legislating for Net Neutrality is hard

A couple of days ago, an anonymous individual identifying themselves as “Backdoor Santa” published some graphs showing that Comcast, a major US Internet Service Provider, runs it’s transit links at capacity for much of the day. This sort of tactic has depressing implications for any attempt to legislate for Net Neutrality, although I shall need to go through some basics to explain why.

As a mid-level ISP, there are three groups of people who you send traffic to and from. These are your customers, your peers and your transit providers. Customers, logically, pay you to carry their traffic. More customers means more money although for many ISPs, customers who buy bandwidth off you are probably not particularly profitable compared to those renting servers or space in a data centre.

Next come your peers – people who you are happy to exchange traffic with for free. (Or at least for no more than the cost of running a few fibres or other circuits between your networks) There is a careful balance to be struck here as fibre between sites and ports on network equipment cost money. This means there is a certain minimum amount of traffic that needs to exist between the networks before it’s worth doing, plus you also don’t want to peer with someone when you’re in London, New York and San Jose but they’re only in London as you’ll be paying for all the expensive international bandwidth.

Finally, if you have traffic that’s destined for somewhere that’s not a customer or reachable for free via a peer, you need to have paid transit. Some companies are so big that they don’t have to pay anyone else to take their traffic because they can reach everyone else either as a customer or via peering. The number of such ISPs varies, but is usually less than a dozen.

So why do Comcast run their transit links so congested as to cause problems? Won’t their customers complain? Well, yes but as some sites will run fast it will just be those sites that run slow that seem to have the problem and they’re big enough to get away with this. If someone providing content, say Amazon or Apple, want to peer with them in order to make the site faster they either say “Sorry, No, you don’t meet our requirements” or put the peering on a link running overcapacity too. The result is that those providers then need to pay Comcast as a customer in order to get decent service. If they don’t, Comcast users will go to their competitors for service.

This is definitely not “Net Neutrality” and something that should be stopped – if indeed it does occur in this country – as it is abuse of a dominant market position. Sadly, there is no prioritisation of traffic involved anywhere which is the usual topic up for discussion in neutrality debates. I do not know of any way of separating out genuine engineering requirements and complicated calculations on the cost vs. benefit of peering from this sort of activity.

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Parliout? Drop the T, please.

I just couldn’t resist a quick blogpost when I saw the news that the UK parliament is creating an LGBT group for MPs, Lords and staff with the not-so-catchy title “Parliout”. There’s going to be a party at the speakers house and everything! Being a self-professed LGB and T group, they will of course be inviting all the high profile Trans parliamentarians… except we don’t have any. How about anyone who is Trans who works in Parliament itself? Or even some senior Trans civil servants from other departments? Nope, none I’m aware of.

In fact, I would hazard a guess that there will not be a single Trans individual present at next Monday’s event, much as there were no Trans individuals present at the Prime Ministers LGB-supposedly-T reception prior to Pride London earlier this year. I would be really happy to be proved wrong, but sadly I’m getting cynical about such things. Hey, I’m sure I can free up a space in my diary on Monday if they want someone to come along! I don’t mind tokenism if it means I’m the one who gets to eat the canapés and Champagne for a change…

Guess who they consulted over the formation of this group? None other than our old friends Stonewall, which explains quite a bit.

Please do not claim the T unless you can show you are entitled to it. We have a word for that: It’s called “Appropriation”. And it makes me cross.

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Installment 2 in the “Letters about Trans…” series: A letter to the Secretary of State for Justice

I shall take a quick break from quaffing Blessed Potions of Healing +1 (Brand Name: Lemsip) and wondering what do with spam sent by a customer in August 2007 that’s just been reported to me to write a quick note to the Secretary of State for Justice about the upcoming guidelines for Trans prisoners.

But first, I shall point out that the last letter I wrote to a government minister was 15 working days ago. Coincidentally, that is apparently the time limit within which that department aims to respond to letters. Hopefully I shall be able to blog tomorrow about the response I’ve received, but given I have not had one yet I’m not that hopeful. Still, I have had a number of emails indicating that the mail is apparently bouncing round between the Department for Education, the Home Office and the Government Equalities Office for reasons unknown to me, so maybe I’ll be lucky and get three separate responses.

Back to the letter:


Rt. Hon. Kenneth Clarke MP, QC, Secretary of State for Justice
By EMail

16th December 2010

Dear Mr Clarke,

I welcome the response from your office in relation to a Freedom of Information request (FOI/67805/10) that indicates that long-overdue guidelines on the handling of prisoners with Gender Dysphoria are being drafted and are likely to be implemented early next year. However, I am concerned about the stated timescales as they do not appear to allow for any consultation and I am unaware of any consultation having taken place to date. I would be grateful if you could outline what steps have been taken to consult with the Transgender community to date and if any future consultation is planned before these guidelines come into force.

Whilst I realise that consultation on internal Prison Service guidelines would typically be neither desirable nor necessary, as a community Trans people are often subject to policy stemming from “common knowledge” that is inaccurate and without any evidential base. This is highlighted by problems with the previous draft guidelines (PSO3300) that create a Catch-22 situation where it was impossible to meet the medical or legal requirements for transition and seem to make assumptions about the generic danger of pre-operative Transwomen in female prisons.

I am guessing that the Prison Service and MoJ have LGBT representatives and experts within them. However, although we share many campaigning goals with the wider LGBT community, the issues faced by the Trans community are quite different and such representatives in government departments are typically focused on LGB issues and may have little additional life experience or knowledge related to Trans issues.

Yours Sincerely,

Zoe O’Connell

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Transitioning prisoners and the Prison Service

It seems I may have been semi-gazumped on my own Freedom Of Information requests – yesterday, both The Sun and the Daily Mail published stories about Trans prisoners. As with much published by those papers, it’s not news as the policy has been around in draft form for a couple of years. (PDF link)

I should point out that the guidelines are described by the Ministry of Justice as a “historical” document rather than one that reflects current policy. However, I understand that the document is still available to prison management and does relate fairly closely to what actually happens at the moment. From the point of view of a transitioning prisoner, it is quite problematic in a number of ways.

Firstly, you had better hope you do not get locked up on remand while in the early stages of working things out but before getting referred to a consultant. Section 4.1 states that before you get as far as a trial, they will not generally even consider any requests for medical intervention. Certainly for larger cases, you can end up on remand for months and that is a long, long time for someone suffering from acute gender dysphoria. Combined with the pressure of prison and a court case, I struggle to think that anyone could survive that.

Secondly, the rules for the prison you are located (section 9.1) state that the default assumption is that you will be held in the prison related to birth gender until you are either post-operative or have a GRC. There’s the obvious Catch-22 here that someone needs to pass the “real life test” before surgery or a GRC, which one can’t do while still in the wrong prison. Even apart from that, being in the wrong prison is clearly going to be very stressful. It was ruled in 2009 (In AB vs. the Secretary of State for Justice) that this was inappropriate, even before the Equalities Act 2010 came into force although it’s possible the EA2010 has created new loopholes. Certainly in the recent case of Nina, we’ve seen someone inappropriately put in a male prison despite being fully transitioned.

And there is some very uninformed discussion in section 9.2 about the “risk” of putting a transwoman into a female prison, particularly if they have committed sex crimes and/or are pre-op. This is entirely backwards, as the effects of hormones (Just HRT, but particularly so for anti-androgens) is to reduce sex drive. Indeed, in some countries they have actually been used to “treat” sex offenders to reduce the risk of re-offending. Rather, there is an increased risk of a transwoman being attacked as she will be physically weaker than much of the rest of the population. Conversely, transmen will be being given hormones that will boost sexual and violent urges and make them stronger and would thus seem to pose a greater risk to the population in a female prison if they have been convicted of crimes of a violent or sexual nature, but this is not discussed.

As usual, it is a case of transmen invisibility coupled with the usual cisgendered fear of “men” getting in amongst the women. Straight, cisgendered males seem to struggle – even if they have the best of intentions – with the idea that someone might not be doing this for sexual reasons.

The new plan is apparently “in development” and should be implemented, if it is approved, “early next year”. There does not appear to be any opportunity for Trans groups to have any input into the draft document before it comes into force, something I intend to raise with the Ministry of Justice.

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GEO Transgender Workshop, part 2

And now we move on to the meat of the discussion from the Government Equalities Office Transgender Workshop. Although as I previously discussed, the meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule, the nature of the meeting means that there would also not be much to say about government policy or likely changes anyway, even if I could. This is because it was a chance for us to let them know our views rather than the other way round. Indeed, even if nothing else I think the meeting was very productive just because it did bring so many people together who would not otherwise have had a chance to meet up.

What I think is most useful for me to do is list topics that came up in the various discussions I was present in. Although we split up into smaller groups for some workshops so issues may have been raised I was unaware of, this should give people an idea what campaigners currently regard as hot topics.

  • NHS treatment is, as ever, high on the agenda. As people may be aware, Primary Care Trusts are being abolished in favour of GP consortia. Despite concerns about localism being bad (See below) I sensed a hope amongst some that the change in structure will be an opportunity for campaigners to secure a change in current practice, given it can hardly get any worse than the de facto blanket ban in operation in some areas.
  • The Gender Recognition Act, in several ways:
    • Marriage-related issues are more of a concern than I’d realised, particularly amongst those who have been fully transitioned for some time. Many refuse to get their marriage annulled just to obtain a GRC and having seen Sarah and Sylvia go through this, I know it can be an unpleasant and problematic procedure that does not work the way that was originally intended. Although it seems the usefulness of a GRC is being diminished, it is still key in one area for some people: Pensions. If you are retiring around now or are already past retirement age, your gender affects your pension age. (An anomaly removed for those of us who are younger) For Trans women, this means you might not be getting a state pension unless you agree to divorce! We already know there is little hope of any parliamentary time in the next couple of years to fix the divorce/annulment requirement or any other Trans issues requiring a major change in the law but I would hope that the Trans community can gain sufficient input into any possible marriage equality bills to fix this at the same time.
    • Misuse of Gender Recognition Certificates. One unintended consequence of issuing GRCs is that some organisations would ask for them inappropriately. (Including Police Officers, eg. the Pride London Toiletgate affair in 2008) The idea was floated to only issue new Birth Certificates (i.e. stop issuing paper GRCs) unless someone either requests them specifically or there isn’t a new Birth Certificate to issue. (e.g. for someone born abroad) Hopefully organisations and individuals won’t ask for a document that the majority of people do not posses! This may be achievable without changes required in law, although the consequences would need to be thought out carefully.
    • It concerns me that there is still some confusion even amongst some activists about how the GRC system works. I heard people who thought that you had to be post-operative to get a GRC or that a GRC was required to get a correctly-gendered passport, which is untrue. (The latter probably caused by some apparently badly worded advice on some web sites which is supposed to indicate just that it is one form of acceptable ID)
  • The last of the big three was Localism – i.e. the push by central government for more power to local communities. There were concerns that in more conservative communities, this could be detrimental to power minorities without appropriate safeguards. (Cambridge is pretty friendly to otherwise marginalised individuals and I’m not hugely familiar with the proposals so I have no strong opinions on this myself)

Between them, I think those three topics probably dominated conversation. In no particular order, other ideas and concerns included:

  • Media representation of Trans people. I think pretty much everyone agreed that the Daily Mail and friends were basically a problem we’re unlikely to fix any time soon. However, I did find out there is apparently a ban on showing Trans issues (Possibly just Trans children) before the watershed on BBC and Channel 4 as it’s seen as “sexual” content. Other countries have documentaries on gender variance aimed at children but they do not get shown in this country because of this. (I was already vaguely aware of the Hollyoaks storyline but I do not know how it fits in with this ruling.)
  • Education was discussed, both at school (Trying to get more Trans input into the curriculum, although localism probably means we’re moving away from setting curriculum centrally) and as adults. (E.g. ensuring medical courses have some content on Trans topics)
  • Alongside the idea to stop routinely issuing the paper GRC, a general feeling that use of gender markers or gender-related titles on official documentation needs to be justified. (For example, the passport service probably need to keep including it to keep in line with international standards, but there is no reason for the DVLA to include it on driving licences) There is some need to monitor gender for equalities purposes, but this restricts questions about gender so equalities monitoring forms which are usually held only as generalised and anonymous data.
  • There is mixed feeling about the Equalities Act 2010 and although we recognise that it is not likely to be changed any time soon, some sort of monitoring of use of exceptions was considered a good idea.

I should stress at this point that effectively what we did was a brainstorming session: Do not expect to see all of the above in the plan when it comes out next year. Some ideas may be impractical once studied further but we were not going to get into the detail of every possible idea in the time available to us. As I understand it, the intention is to release the actual plan some time next year after further, more widespread and public, consultation. I would hope that such a plan can include more aspirational goals such as eventually updating the Equalities Act 2010 but I am not clear if such things are within its scope. What we’re more likely to see, in my opinion, is “quick wins” by changing existing civil service policy or monitoring procedures. Being Civil Service, there was a general requirement that any changes required a measurable outcome. I’m not sure how this would work in terms of more quality-of-life changes such as sorting out the requirement to divorce to get a full GRC, but I guess there are established solutions to such issues.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAnd finally, there was discussion about consultation processes themselves and general communication with the community. One concept that came up briefly was the idea of “Consultation Fatigue” and this is certainly a danger as it can be quite draining to repeatedly get asked the same questions by the EHRC, the GEO etc. At the very least, it’s prone to promote frustration about too much talk and little action when it is largely a volunteer community doing the work and not people as part of their full time jobs. Another issue was the pressure for grass-roots organisations that revolve around email lists, forums and blogs to formalise into “proper” charities before groups, particularly the likes of NHS Specialist Commissioning Groups, will talk to them. Sadly, becoming a formal charity takes a significant amount of time away from actual activism and I don’t think the Trans community has the resources to sustain more than a very small number of such groups.

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